The Truth About Rigoberta Menchú

Rigoberta Menchu
Rigoberta Menchu; drawing by David Levine


In 1983, Editions Gallimard in Paris brought out the original French edition of a book published the following year in English as I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian woman in Guatemala. I, Rigoberta is the first-person story of Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a young Maya Indian woman whose family and village had been virtually destroyed by the violence then sweeping Guatemala. The book was soon translated into twelve languages and has since sold more than half a million copies.

Guatemala is a country of eleven million people that had been in a state of intermittent civil war since 1954, when the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown by a right-wing military coup. During this period perhaps two hundred thousand Guatemalans were killed through political violence. By telling her story in a strong personal voice, Rigoberta Menchú (universally known as Rigoberta) did much to publicize the violence in Guatemala, particularly during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it was directed largely at the country’s Maya Indian population. Eventually, in December of 1996, the government and four opposition guerrilla groups (by then joined together in the organization known as the URNG) signed a peace accord. Rigoberta’s book and the international attention it attracted had no small part in bringing about this result.

What made Rigoberta’s message so important was that she was a Maya Indian. Half of Guatemala’s population is Maya, and during the late Seventies and early Eighties—the period in which Rigoberta’s book is set—the Maya suffered violence on an enormous scale. As part of the peace accords, the government and the guerrillas agreed to establish a Commission for Historical Clarification—commonly referred to as the truth commission—which issued its report last month. Compiled under the supervision of a distinguished German jurist, the report, released this February, described the government’s counter-insurgency policy as “genocidal” as well as “racist” and noted that “the massacres, scorched-earth operations, forced disappearances and executions of Mayan authorities, leaders, and spiritual guides, were not only an attempt to destroy the social base of the guerrillas, but above all, to destroy the cultural values that ensured cohesion and collective action in the Mayan communities.”

Most of Guatemala’s Maya live in the country’s mountainous highlands, where they speak a variety of closely related but mutually unintelligible languages and are tied to a desperately poor farming economy based on corn, beans, and squash. In the late 1970s, many Maya became engaged in social activism—they founded cooperatives, started unions, agitated for land. The government felt threatened enough by these movements to begin systematically assassinating their leaders. At the same time, several antigovernment guerrilla groups established themselves in the highlands, and when large numbers of the Maya began to join the guerrillas—often less as a result of political sympathy (although many sympathized) than out of the need to save their lives—the government further increased its violence.

Beginning around 1980, the government initiated a policy of…

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